PITTSBURGH PIRATES MANAGER CLINT HURDLE HAS AN UNCANNY ABILITY TO UPLIFT OTHERS
by Nicole Barley | Photography by Duane Rieder | Art Direction by MacKenzie Hoops
A framed quote from the most prolific Pittsburgh Pirate of them all, Roberto Clemente, hangs at the entrance of Manager Clint Hurdle’s office at PNC Park. It reads: “Any time you have an opportunity to make a difference in this world and you don’t, then you are wasting your time on Earth.”
There are other platitudes and encouragements posted on the walls of the tidy room, a book here and there focusing on leadership and inspirational quotes. But in comparison to the booming, magnetic presence that is Clint Hurdle, there’s no question that the source of all of this positivity comes straight from the man himself. His personality is not put on or pushy, it’s real and compelling. He speaks in straightforward sentences that are somehow simultaneously filled with imagination and insight. His appeal is inherent, says Stan Savran, host of the 970-AM ESPN Radio show, Savran on Sports. “He is truly a dynamic personality. When he’s in a room, people gravitate to him. He’s the brightest light in the room.”
Hurdle confirms that those books and plaques are merely evidence of his motivational nature — not the origin. “I get my inspiration through my experience. And I have learned there’s much more value in life by encouraging others and believing in others,” he says. “I know the spoken word is huge for me. When you spend time with people, it’s the greatest gift you can give ’em.”
One of the ways he does just that is by sending a daily text message or email to his players, the coaching staff, and members of the Pirates’ front office. It might be anything from a motivational story about scaling a mountain all the way to the very peak, to a quote about leadership from President Dwight D. Eisenhower. He knows that some of the recipients may pay no heed to this daily dose of encouragement. He also knows that others are paying attention, and he’s seen it make a difference in the clubhouse. “I know they’ve started to realize that it’s me, just speaking to them, and giving them something to think about. Different lightning bolts strike different people, but it’s all about encouragement, it’s all about positivity, it’s all about trust.”
Obviously, in the course of life, “Shift happens,” says Hurdle. The witty little play on words was one of his “focus points” for the team during spring training in Bradenton, Fla. “Yeah, you gotta plan for shift. We experienced shift last year the last two months of the season, and we’re better for it,” he says.
Some might pinpoint the exact moment of that so-called “shift” to the 19-inning game against the Atlanta Braves that ended with a blown call at the plate (sorry, Jerry Meals) and a Pirates’ loss. Prior to that balloon-busting game were some stellar plate appearances and innings, including catcher Michael McKenry’s eighth inning three-run homer to send the Chicago Cubs packing, and reliever Jose Veras getting Big Papi to ground out and close the game against the Boston Red Sox.
But flashbulb moments like that don’t spark out of thin air. They come about through a process, an active effort, in this case, one by Hurdle to instill faith into his players. Going into spring training last February, “We had to build a layer of belief and a foundation of trust, me being the new manager and pretty much a new coaching staff, with players who hadn’t had a lot of success. So, my point of emphasis daily was, live in the moment. We can’t do anything about yesterday’s game; I don’t know if I’m going to be here for tomorrow’s game. Let’s do everything we can to put our focus and energy into today’s game, and I think that developed a momentum of its own.”
Pirates second baseman Neil Walker acknowledges that momentum and lauds Hurdle for his commitment to changing the team for the better. “Look at last year,” Walker says. “We had the entire city behind us, and Clint had us and our fans believing that we could win the division. His success and our team’s success has a lot to do with his positive approach.”
But there’s more work to be done. It’s undeniable that some of the long-standing needs of this young, unwinning team are encouragement, strong leadership, and definitive direction. Enter Hurdle in 2010, following the departure of former skipper John Russell, a change which was “the ultimate in night and day,” says Paul Alexander, anchor/reporter with ROOT Sports Pittsburgh and host of The Fan Morning Show on 93.7 FM. “Clint Hurdle is very positive. He demands accountability, he doesn’t make excuses, he’s straightforward. He’s a great communicator, and I think he tells guys the way it is. Hopefully they respect that. They’re treated like men, and first and foremost, it’s his intelligence that really stands out.” In fact, Hurdle’s choices coming out of high school were to continue his path to playing baseball professionally or attend
Something else that’s undeniable is Pittsburgh’s want for a winning team, for tangible success. It’s something this manager is aware of and holds the conviction that it can happen. “I have faith in a lot of different places. I believe in things I can’t see,” Hurdle says, pointing to the intangible buzz for the Pirates that vibrated through the city last summer. “Buc Nation is still there. There are still some that aren’t, that haven’t come back. We’ve lost a generation of fans, but we have an opportunity to gain another generation of fans.”
Besides his smarts and optimism, the other attribute everyone seems to mention about Hurdle is his big booming voice, only enhanced by his imposing physical presence. You can’t help but listen intently — even when you’re being reprimanded.
Alexander recalls a particular post-game encounter in Hurdle’s office, during which a gathering of reporters sat to chat with the Pirates manager. Spotting one of those aforementioned books on Hurdle’s desk, Alexander made a wise crack that was immediately shut down by the big man. “He proceeded to lecture me on cynicism, how there’s no benefit to being a cynic and there’s nothing good that comes out of being cynical. But he did it in such a way that I almost felt I was a better person for having gone through. It was done in a way that was respectful,” Alexander recalls. “That was early on in his tenure. I said, ‘Man, this guy is really going to be a lot of fun to deal with because he is one smart guy.’ I’ve been very impressed.”
Outside of PNC Park, Hurdle has been making an impression as well. Since day one, his mentality toward Pittsburgh has been “all in,” from living here year round with his wife, Karla, and two kids, daughter Madison (who’d wear a Pittsburgh sports jersey to school every day if she could, says Hurdle) and son Christian, to being directly involved with the community. A recent example was his role as the keynote speaker for the Salvation Army’s Doing the Most Good Dinner. “It was refreshing to hear Clint give testimony on his Christian beliefs and his compassionate views on helping others. He did a fantastic job in delivering his message about what is important in life … God, family, and job responsibilities. We are proud to call Mr. Hurdle our friend,” says Fran Brace, Director of Development for The Salvation Army Western Pennsylvania Division.
He’s “all in” at the park, too. We’re talking about a manager who is in the dugout long before the first pitch. “I bet you a lot of money there aren’t many managers who get in the dugout a half an hour before the game. That’s the way I’m wired. Most managers they come down a little bit later, maybe for the anthem. But I’m down there. I just like to start feeling it, smelling it, kind of like in Gladiator,” he says as he mimes reaching down, picking up dirt, and rubbing it in his palms, à la Russell Crowe as Maximus.
He’s the kind of guy who truly cares for his players’ happiness. He recognizes that if he invests in them off the field, it can only stand to enhance their performance on it. Case in point: During spring training last year, Savran was in the McKechnie Field locker room following a game and observed as Hurdle approached one of the team’s minor league pitchers, asking him how a date the previous night went. “He was genuinely interested in how [that player’s] date went. It just struck me at how well he was connecting with this young guy he didn’t even know two weeks ago, and that had to mean a great deal to that kid. I just thought that was so illustrative of the kind of guy Clint is.”
Hurdle is also a manager who makes no excuses, whether it’s for the giant wad of pink bubble gum he chomps through each and every game — in case you’re wondering, it’s anywhere between six to eight pieces of Bazooka. At once. “Ghastly,” he calls it with a laugh — or for defiantly and un-superstitiously wearing the number 13. In other words, he notes, he’s not triskaidekaphobic. (Told you he’s smart.)
He’s also a major music lover, with a 10,000-and-counting CD collection, and is unabashed about going through his iPod to play snippets of his favorite music. He’s got everything on there from Dylan to The Voice’s Beverly McClellan. If he were a player now, Hurdle’s walk-up song would be Gregg Allman’s “No Angel.” “The lyrics are so strong,” he says. “Gregg Allman — he was married to Cher. That’s another reason he’s one of my idols. I’ve had a crush on Cher since I was like 13. My wife knows it. It’s no secret.”
Bold, fearless, and frequently, laugh out loud funny. Who wouldn’t want to hitch their wagon to Hurdle’s way of leading?
As for us, we’re all in.
Pittsburgh Pirates, pirates.com.
This article is featured in the April 2012 issue of WHIRL Magazine.
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